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Vol. LXIII, No. 7
 
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
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DVD Review

Charming, Loving, Heroic, Unforgettable Women: An Oscar Serenade

Stuart Mitchner

On Valentine’s Day my wife and I watched Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955) on Turner Classic Movies. The genre Hollywood most often violates is the love story, and this was no exception. I have nothing against love stories; my favorite director, Frank Borzage, after all, was a master of romance, so maybe I’m picky, but I didn’t believe, not for a second, that Jennifer Jones’s Eurasian doctor loved William Holden’s American newspaper correspondent, or vice-versa. The only way the movie could manage to evoke that many-splendored emotion was through heavy orchestral flourishes based on the theme song with its soaring signature line, “Love on a high and windy hill,” where “two lovers kissed and the earth stood still.” Nothing stood still when those two kissed except the movie. According to the back story reported on imdb (an indispensable website if you love movies), the two stars didn’t get along. When Holden presented Jones with a bouquet of white roses as a peace offering, she threw them in his face. And she ate garlic before the kissing scenes, in case he got any extracurricular ideas. You can tell. You can almost smell the garlic.

As svelte as she looked in her Eurasian Western wardrobe, Jennifer Jones had no charm, no zing, no glow. Nothing. And she got a Best Actress nomination for going through the motions in that travesty of a love story.

Where’s the Charm?

Look back over the almost eight decades of American film dating from the first Academy Award ceremonies in 1928, and you’ll find that charming, loving, heroic, unforgettable female performances rarely win Oscars. One shining exception is the first Best Actress winner, Janet Gaynor, who embodies all those adjectives in two of Frank Borzage’s greatest love stories, 7th Heaven and Street Angel. It’s not just that Gaynor and Borzage want to make you believe she deeply and exaltedly loves and is loved by her co-star Charles Farrell. They have to make the audience love the lovers, and they succeed, judging from the couple’s worldwide popularity. None of the other Oscar-winning actresses through the two decades that followed could equal Gaynor’s natural charm. Katherine Hepburn’s beauty in Morning Glory (1932) is almost too precious, too ah-sweet-mystery-of-life; you can admire her but it’s hard to love her. Claudette Colbert gives a spirited performance in It Happened One Night (1934) but rarely communicates anything more than surface allure. What a contrast is Margaret Sullavan’s performance as the luminous naif in The Good Fairy the same year. Colbert’s heiress is fun; Sullavan’s wide-eyed orphan is irresistible; she disarms and delights you. You’re bewitched, infatuated, charmed to the marrow. Five years later when Vivien Leigh wins the Best Actress Oscar in the Hollywood equivalent of a landslide in Gone With The Wind, she deserves it; she’s wonderful, but for Scarlett O’Hara, “charm” is a device to be employed at opportune moments.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, the true charmers like Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Sylvia Sidney, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, Jeanette Macdonald, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, and, of course, Margaret Sullavan, were occasionally nominated but never achieved a place among the so-called “best.” Whether they were playing comedy or drama, they communicated in varying degrees of intensity the qualities projected by Janet Gaynor and Margaret Sullavan. They were lovable and loving and more than a match for their male counterparts. Yet this, the very essence of star power or star quality, which is what Hollywood is seemingly all about, somehow doesn’t, except in rare instances, agree with the Academy’s perception of award-worthy acting. Bette Davis wins for hard, abrasive roles in Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938) rather than for the warmer, more emotional parts she plays so memorably in Dark Victory (1939) and Now, Voyager (1942). And there were no Oscars and only two nominations for Greta Garbo, the most charismatic actress of them all, and the most physically eloquent — Garbo, who could devastate audiences with a look or by simply moving around a room as she does in Queen Christina (1933), touching the objects made precious by sharing the same space with her and her lover.

It isn’t until the 1953 Oscars that the Academy puts its seal of approval on a female star radiating the quality I’m talking about. But then who, man or woman, boy or girl, could resist Audrey Hepburn as the princess playing hooky in Roman Holiday? Hepburn had that same new-to-the-world glow that Sullavan had in The Good Fairy. That same year, 1953, was a rare one in that two other Best Actress nominees made it on the strength of their charm: Leslie Caron in Gigi and Maggie McNamera in The Moon is Blue.

Shirley MacLaine was nominated for her touching performance as the elevator operator in The Apartment (1960), where she makes “shut up and deal” sound like “I love you,” but she lost out to Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8, a pick that had more to do with clout than charm. MacLaine finally won an Oscar for Terms of Endearment (1986), outdoing her co-star, Debra Winger, who was nominated again in 1994 for Shadowlands. What Winger does in those two films is what Gaynor does in 7th Heaven: she makes the audience love her. The 1994 Oscar went with good reason to Holly Hunter, who was amazing in The Piano, but you don’t love her the way you do Winger’s Joy Gresham in Shadowlands. For that movie to work, you have to appreciate her almost as profoundly as Anthony Hopkins does, so that when she dies, her death achieves genuine emotional magnitude.

Helen Hunt

The true heroine of this column about charming actresses who have been forgotten by Oscar is Helen Hunt in James L. Brooks’s As Good As It Gets (1997). Except that she, at last, was not forgotten; she was unforgettable. The love story everyone was talking about that year was the one between Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio in Titanic, which swept the Academy Awards — with the exception of Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson, who won Best Actress and Actor by playing the most improbable pair of lovers imaginable. Think back to 1955 and the tepid pairing of Holden and Jones. In this bizarre romance you have to believe that a pretty, very with-it Manhattan waitress with a sick kid is going to both captivate and humanize a thoroughly reprehensible obsessive-compulsive sexist racist jerk of a hack writer named Melvin Udall; you also have to believe that this tough, loving, vulnerable, funny, heroic, level-headed woman is possibly even going to come to love the loathsome Melvin. There are no trysts high on a windy hill in this slice of Manhattan life. You have a cute dog, a physically and emotionally battered gay artist (brilliantly played by Greg Kin-near), and a Mr. Nasty who makes Don Rickles look like Tiny Tim as he spews venomous insults at gays, Jews, plain women, Latinos, blacks, and small cute dogs. It’s not exactly what you would call a romantic element.

But what a wonder Helen Hunt is in this movie. By the end you’re as infatuated as Melvin, ready to step in and give her a pep talk when her son is running a fever or when she’s tearfully admitting to her mother (Shirley Knight) that she desperately needs a man, because she’s not, as the saying goes, “getting any,” and it’s killing her. If it’s true that Holly Hunter turned down the role, you can see why. Imagine reading the screenplay and coming to some of the foul things said and done by the obnoxious Melvin. It would take a miracle worker to bring off a romance under these conditions. With help from director James L. Brooks, writer Mark Andrus, Kinnear, Nicholson, Verdell (the dog), and company, Helen Hunt more than brings it off. She gives a performance for the ages.

This Year

Women possessing in varying degrees the qualities I’ve been celebrating have won Oscars in recent years, including Frances McDormand in Fargo (1996), Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love (1998), Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006), and in 2007, Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose. This year Amy Adams was worthy of the title in Enchanted, but she didn’t get the attention of the Academy. Nor did the fullest, most animated, most engaging and subtly heroic female performance of them all, Sally Hawkins as Poppy, the phenomenally cheery London schoolteacher in my favorite film of 2008, Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. One of Leigh’s best pictures, it came and went at the Montgomery Theatre in a matter of a week or two, in spite of rave reviews, and I doubt that you’ll be hearing much about it next Sunday at the Academy Awards, unless Mike Leigh wins an Oscar for best original screenplay, which is unlikely. Sally Hawkins, by the way, has won 14 Best Actress trophies for Happy-Go-Lucky so far, including the Golden Globe and the New York, London, and San Francisco Film Critics awards. The fact that she wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar bears out my theory that, more often than not, the Academy simply doesn’t have an instrument calibrated to measure this sort of very human magic.

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